Are you my life-choice supervisor?

The "you're not the boss of me" objection goes like this: pick some not unreasonable but not universally liked behavioral prescription, object to it by saying, "you're not the boss of me."  Trust me, it's how you have a mature, well-informed, and honest debate about, say, public health. 

Some so-called Medical Doctors have suggested that eating certain kinds of foods (Super-sized Salted Salty-O's, for example) will turn you into a health care nightmare.  But this is America.  To ruin your own health, out of ignorance, seems to be some kind right.  You have a right not to have someone inform you about the relevant facts of your life choices.  Or so argues Michael Gerson:

Following the passage of Democratic health-care reform legislation, President Obama assured the country that it was a "middle-of-the-road, centrist approach" instead of an intrusive, government power grab. But the government seems incapable of resisting the nannying impulse that undermines this claim.

So health reform includes a 10 percent tax on the use of indoor tanning beds. (Someone needs to stop this slow-motion Chernobyl.) The law also requires fast-food restaurants to post their calorie counts at the drive-through window, lest anyone be under the impression that a Big Mac is health food.

Recently, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called for a ban on chewing tobacco in major league baseball. A lawyer for the players' association said, "We can go back to the players and say, 'Congress feels strongly about this. You ought to think about it. Look what's happened on other issues Congress felt strongly about.' " And concerned scientists raised the prospect of legal limits on the salt content of processed foods. There is safety in blandness.

Most symbolically, this year's White House Easter Egg Roll pointedly did not include the distribution of teeth-rotting, obesity-inducing candy. "Every goodie bag," according to one account, "was stuffed with pre-screened fruit, and the grounds were filled with exercise stations." One can only imagine the joy on young faces when they got their apple and their workout.

I can hardly be called a libertarian. Legalizing drugs is a foolish idea because addiction robs people of liberty. Restaurant smoking bans have improved my life and my appetite. But freedom implies some leeway for personal risk and minor, pleasurable foolishness. Democrats in particular seem to be afflicted with Mary Poppins Syndrome: They will not rest until Americans are practically perfect in every way.

I think informing people about the undeniable realities of their food choices–a Big Mac contains 576 calories–could hardly be called an attempt to make Americans perfect in every way.  Rather, some might argue (me for instance), that industries such as BIG COLA and BIG BURGER want to make people ignorant of the consequences of their choices.  Even a libertarian–a consistent one-would have to admit that it's a good thing to know what your food contains. 

But no–such efforts amount to nagging:

This tendency has added relevance because of the passage of health-care reform. When the provision of health insurance to every American becomes a direct responsibility of government, nearly every health matter becomes a public matter. Why not regulate tanning at beaches? Wouldn't mandatory, subsidized sunscreen save billions in health costs? Why not a jelly doughnuts tax? Why not make saturated fat a controlled substance? Shouldn't children on tricycles be required to wear safety helmets?

For some of us, the problem is not the tyranny but the nagging. As the public role in health care expands dramatically, health-care controversies become politicized. The health enthusiasms of a president, an influential congressman or an interest group can become public policy or public pressure. After all: "Look what's happened on other issues Congress felt strongly about." 

Such things always have politicized.  And when people advocate consumers be provided with more information, we get the same, childish argument.  No, no one is the boss of Michael Gerson–he can have a Big Mac whenever he wants.  

5 thoughts on “Are you my life-choice supervisor?”

  1. Is there a variety of the "nanny state" slippery slope in here as well?  "Government can't resist…., etc….  won't rest until Americans are perfect."  
    Either way, it's beyond stupid to claim that more information reduces someone's free choice.  Some crazy philosophers might think that that information actually makes choice possible, especially when our normal expectations about what counts as a food ingredient are often so far off-mark from what is actually "delivered" in the food itself.  
    Btw, that Big Mac (without cheese) has fewer calories than I would have suspected.

  2. One might accuse Gerson of ignorance if his position weren't so willfully ideological in raising the "nanny" flag. Government intervention goes much further in protecting conservative interests and shifting wealth upwards than folks like Gerson typically bother to admit. (The discussion of this fact can be found in Dean Baker's mostly very good The Conservative Nanny State.)
    I am also obliged to wonder at Gerson's careful choice of what it is OK to regulate: Drugs deprive people of liberty, but bad health does not? On the other hand, a war on drugs invests the government with power while health care reform — arguably, at least; certainly if done right — shifts power back to people at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

  3. The argument that information robs us of our liberty is moronic, of course, but it is also a red herring, IMO:  The real issue is whether such regulations represent a burden on businesses.  After all, they have to post the information, and that information, moreover, threatens to cut into their profit margins as people reconsider — freely — their choices. 

  4. A minor point, perhaps: more information as such does not always imply freer choice. The information must also, of course, be relevant.
    The difference, I think, between the "conservative" view and the "nanny state" view is that conservatives suppose people to have far more autonomy than nanny-staters do. The success public relations campaigns and the marketing and advertising industries have in influencing public opinion seems to support the latter view.

  5. I like his false dichotomy  of having foods with no regulations on quantities of salt or having foods without any taste. But I also think that some people are kidding themselves into thinking that people aren't aware of how bad something is for them. I don't need a to know exactly how many calories are in that double cheeseburger, which is causing grease to drip down my hand, in order to know it is bad for me.
    I think Gerson is arguing badly, that the sign next to the drive thru is analogous to the surgeon general’s warning on cigarettes, and is predicting a similar “doom” (some people see it that way) that came with smoking. I mean, sure you can still smoke if you can afford nine dollars a pack. So what, it will just be the ten dollar menu but you will still have the choice.

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